Is Thailand a Third World Country?

  • Posted onJune 27th, 2014

hiso hotelI’ve recently had a couple of long conversations with friends (both expats and regular tourists to Thailand), debating whether Thailand is or isn’t a third world country. It has surprised me just how split opinions are on this topic, so I thought it’s something worth investigating and sharing with you.

What is a third world country?

Firstly, I had to look up just what a third world country is, to make sure my definition was correct, and I found another surprise.

The original term ‘Third World Country’ came about during the cold war, and rather than being used to categorize countries by their economic standing and development, the terms were actually created to divide the nations of the world into three groups based on social and political divisions.

Bangkok Dangerous Market

The first world categorized the USA and countries which were its political allies, such as most of Western Europe. The second world was used for the U.S.S.R. and its allies, such as China and Cuba, who were also known as The Communist Bloc. The third world was made up of all the countries which were not politically aligned or dependent on the USA or U.S.S.R., which was most of the developing world, such as India, Latin America, and much of Africa. This is interesting because Thailand was actually allied to the USA and Western Europe, and was therefore classed as a first world country.
It’s clear that the meaning has changed and evolved somewhat and it’s no longer relevant to group countries by their allegiance to the USA or Russia. In fact, at the time there were extremely developed and economically strong countries which did not take any allegiance, such as Austria and Switzerland, and so were classed as third world countries.

The fact is that while the old definitions of first, second, and third world countries are no longer relevant, the terms have not been officially redefined. Today many will argue that extremely developed countries are first world, and countries in extreme poverty are third world, but where does that leave a country such as Thailand, which is filled with contradictions and opposing opinions.

Thieves MArketArguments that Thailand is a third world Country

If you ever visit a Government Hospital in Thailand the words ‘Third World’ might be the first which come to mind. Conditions are close to scary, especially if you’re used to the international hospitals of the country, or hospitals back in the west. One friend who recently visited one with his Thai wife said he witnessed one of the worst hospitals he’d seen in his life, and that is something from a guy who has spent a lot of time in parts of Africa.

Often when walking the streets of Thailand’s cities, it’s amazing how poor most footpaths are. Even in the centre of Bangkok you have to keep one eye on the sidewalk ahead, as you never know when you’ll encounter a large crack or hole in the ground (usually every 5th step). Something you’d never expect to see in the capital of a developed nation.

If you live in rural Thailand power cuts can be a weekly occurrence, and even in Bangkok you’ll get a loss of power during some of the larger storms of monsoon season. Surely another sign that Thailand isn’t as well developed as some would like you to think.

You could also argue that while Bangkok is a city littered with skyscrapers and multi-million dollar projects, you never have to look far to find poverty, and for every super car which passes by there is a strip of shacks and huts where people live in absolute squaller, and what you would class as third world conditions.

Bangkok at nightArguments that Thailand isn’t a third world country

If you go by unemployment levels then Thailand would easily be a first would country. Its unemployment is almost zero, while countries such as Greece, and Spain, for example, currently have an unemployment level around 25%!

While there are areas of shanty towns and poverty in Bangkok, you could also argue that there are also far less homeless people. In fact, many of the beggars you’ll find around tourist areas are actually just pretending to be homeless to make money, and I’m sure there are less actual homeless people in Thailand than you’d find in many of the so called ‘developed nations’.

The truth is, Thailand has a booming economy that is showing few signs of slowing down. The Bangkok skyline is clear testament to that, continually being modernized by many huge construction projects, each one outdoing the next for size and expense. Several huge Japanese companies are notably expanding into Thailand and invest heavily in the country and Bangkok in particular.

Some would go as far as classifying Thailand as one of the richer nations of the world over the last decade. While there is a large number of poor, the cost of living and amount jobs in Thailand insure that it is in no crisis, which can’t be said for many present day Western nations.

Wat TraimitSo is Thailand a third world country?

While Thailand has some traits of what you would call a third world country, it also has many traits of the first world and a country that is moving in a very positive direction, certainly economically. Thailand is developing faster than any country in the west, and those who have travelled here for the last 10 or so years will tell you the vast modernization they have witnessed, not to mention current exchange rates Western visitors are getting against the Thai Baht.

With everything taken into account I couldn’t class Thailand as a first world country, and there is actually a better argument for it being a first world country, or at least a soon-to-be developed nation. In fact, my prediction would be that within 10 years Thailand will be on a par with many western countries, if not more developed and stable in terms of economy and lifestyle on offer.


  1. Sheldon says:

    Reading this article, there are conflicting points of wheter or not Thailand is a third world country or a first world country. I have seen a combination of both in Thailand. The airport in Bangkok is state-of-the-art, and the roads in Thailand, wow! I love the national highways there! Even in the middle of nowhere you can drive on highway 2 at 100 km/h because it’s four lanes wide but not even an expressway. (Faster than driving on the Trans-Canada highway in Northern Ontario). But anyway, what about the factors of annual GDP per capita? Are you fogetting that? Thailand’s annual GDP per capita is at around US$7000, it is about the same as Jamaica. Basically like Jamaica I would place Thailand as being in the upper tier third word, or perhaps with its economic growth I would place Thailand at second world status. But with many Thai being poor and having a low cost of living and plenty of jobs, they can’t go wrong in Thailand at all. And furthermore, a blog like this should be read by more patrioticaly arrogant people in our Western countries so they can open their minds and stop putting down countries like Thailand. Because to be frank, Thailand is not suffering from any economic crisis as much as what we see happening in the West today.

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